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Moorhead narrowly defeats school levy

Moorhead Schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash monitors results of the operating levy vote Tuesday night while Kris Thompson, chairwoman of the school board, left, and board member Bill Tomhave check the projection screen inside the Probstfield Center for Education in Moorhead. (David Samson/The Forum

MOORHEAD -- In a breathtakingly close vote, Moorhead taxpayers defeated an $850 per-pupil operating levy that would have brought in an extra $5.25 million a year for public schools.

After a suspenseful evening, the final tally came in 117 votes short of passing, with 50.7 percent voting "no" and 49.3 percent in favor of the levy. A total of 8,273 votes were cast.

The district's plea to taxpayers came on the heels of $4.5 million in budget cuts this spring that claimed, among other things, the jobs of more than 30 teachers. School officials said the extra money would help the district dodge more painful cuts next spring and reverse sharp class size increases at the middle and high school.

But residents who cast an opposing vote at the polls said they had to contend with strains on their own budgets.

The close vote kept administrators and school board members on edge at the Probstfield Center, where anxiety was palpable as they paced the board room and awaited slowly trickling results. They met vote numbers from the final precincts with cries of "Oh God" as the "no" votes continued to narrowly outpace those in support. When the final precinct reported results, they fell silent.

"We'll have to look at more reductions," said a shaken Lynne Kovash, the district's superintendent. "We know we have to continue to balance our budget."

She said the result was an indication that questions about the district's financial situation persisted, and officials would set out to answer them and listen to community ideas. She did not say if the district would try again at the polls.

The issue seemed to spur brisker-than-usual voter traffic for an off-year election, with residents interviewed at the polls almost unanimously stating the levy vote was the main reason they'd made a point of showing up to vote.

"It's been way busier than what we were expecting," said Mary Holthe, the chief judge at Triumph Lutheran Church. "I think it's the school election. That's what I am hearing from a lot of people."

The levy would have raised taxes by an estimated $183 a year on a $100,000 home and by $457 a year on a $250,000 home, according to estimates prepared by Ehlers & Associates, Inc., the district's financial advisors. Taxpayers in Moorhead are paying off a $64 million bond that funded a major facilities overhaul in 2004.

Officials in Moorhead, as well as counterparts in a slew of other area districts pursuing new or increased levies Tuesday, said flat funding from the state along with rising expenses put them in a precarious financial situation. More than 90 percent of Minnesota districts now have operating levies in place.

There was no organized group campaigning in opposition of the levy.

Supporters, many of them parents of Moorhead students, said Tuesday they were troubled by the increase in class sizes and the prospect of deeper cuts should the levy fail.

"When my kids are coming home and saying, 'My class is really big this year,' it just kind of hits home," said Shelly Hawley, who has three children in the district. Her child in junior high has seen classes swell from the lower 20s to 30 students or more.

Tracey Wirries, mom of three, also came out to support the levy. She said she cringes at the prospect of a bump in her family's tax bill: "I hate that. I really do. It's hard right now, so it's going to get harder yet. But you've got to do something for the kids."

Opponents said the district was asking for too much from Moorhead taxpayers beleaguered by the rough economy. They said the district should have done more to rein in expenses in recent years before resorting to a levy that would put a strain on family budgets.

"They have to tighten their belt," said Deane Williams, who added he and his wife, Cleo, went to the polls mainly because of their strong opposition to the levy.

School officials had expressed cautious optimism in the buildup to the levy largely because of a phone survey of 300 residents commissioned by the district this summer. In it, 57 percent said they would back an $850 per-pupil levy, even as respondents overwhelmingly reported financial stress and a sense that property taxes were already too high.